October 14, 2007

The Latin Lunacies

Very little in the world is crazier than some of the things people think about Latin. Among many (though not all) modern-ish people, there is a crazy notion that allowing Latin is somehow destructive of all other languages. Among many (though not all) Traditionalists, there is an almost as crazy notion that Latin is the only good language for the Liturgy and Theology of the Church.

The fact of the matter is, Latin once was the vernacular. It was adopted in place of Greek and Aramaic for little other reason than that everybody happened to speak it thanks to the Roman Empire. After it was adopted, the influence of strong Theology and great Liturgy made Latin the awesome Church language it is. If China had happened to rule the world at the time, the Church would have adopted Chinese and made it into the same sort of great language of Tradition. There is no reason, for that matter, that the same could not be done with any good quality language, providing only that those people who write things like "pwn" and "thanxurs" don't take over the world.

I'm not saying that Latin isn't the language that for over a thousand years (and still today) has been the best for the Church's great Tradition, so much so as to be the Church's official language. I'm saying that it just happens to be so because it was used so and not the other way around. Niether the silly idea that Latin is hostile to vernacular languages nor the silly idea that vernacular languages are necessarily incapable of being good has any basis. That Latin is the main language so far to have been developed into a great language of the Church is true (although Greek is a close second), and that it is therefore the Church's official language is also true, but any division beyond that is a false dichotomy.

Wait, I can just hear some people saying, isn't there some difference here because Latin is a dead language? There might be, I say, but it wasn't dead when it grew to be what it is. Besides, I can give you plenty of Latinists who would insist that even today it isn't dead. All too often "dead language" means simply "generally unpopular except among its fanatics language". You may say that Latin's main advantage or main disadvantage is that it's dead, but I would have to ask then why the reverse must have been true for such a long time, including the time when such writings as St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica were written.

Another thing I'm tired of hearing is this confusion of the older form of the Liturgy (now the "forma extraordinaria") and Latin. While the old form is always celebrated in Latin as far as I know of, the link between the two has been far overestimated. I've been to plenty of absolutely wonderful Novus Ordo Masses in Latin. Papa Ben has declared that the imaginary split between the old form (which was and is still the same Roman Rite!) and the Novus Ordo is just that: imaginary. The split between Latin and vernacular is similarly imaginary. The two imaginary splits happen to coincide, but as both are imaginary I don't think there is any real connection. I mean, when's the last time you found a real connection between two non-real things? The fact of the matter is, in no way does keeping the great Tradition with us in the old form of the Roman Rite mean that we'll lose the vernacular languages, or vice versa.

Tradition is not a static thing; it grows slowly and surely as a deeply rooted tree. That's what the Novus Ordo was supposed to be about, before crazy people hijacked it, and what it will be about again once Papa Ben's reform is through. That tree is also what we ought to think about when considering the great Tradition that Latin holds and the possibility of growing that Tradition out into other languages.

Latin is a wonderfully rich (albeit confusing and rather annoying to many students, as I always remind my Latinist friends who haven't had the bad experiences I've had in Latin class) language that ought to enrich our own languages. There's no reason our own languages cannot share in this richness, providing only that we can find Latin teachers capable of explaining to non-grammarians. There's no reason we have to have only one to the detriment of the other. Even if mixings like "Spanglish" are decried by purists, at least we can try to learn the other languages and to re-create in purer ways the sort of rich expression we find in them. Don't perpetuate the false dichotomy: fight it!

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